by Brooklyn Mario
This article was published originally in the May 2009 edition of Drum Corps World (Volume 38, Number 2).
If you don’t know who he is, you most likely haven’t been involved in drum corps very long. Then again, it is probable that he’s passed through several decades of the DCI press sieve without being justifiably recognized as an elemental ingredient in both the process and the product drum corps is today.
According to Bobby “The Kid” Bellarosa’s personal postscript, he played for two corps: “HNCC and Garbarina.” By way of explanation, this translates as Holy Name Cadets Corps, Garfield Cadets, Cadets of Bergen County, The Cadets — but eternally, Holy Name Cadet Corps.
Likewise, Garbarina (or Garbarina-Mazarakos) is decrypted as the New York Skyliners — from New York City. The Skyliners were always from New York City, even when they weren’t.
Somewhere, somehow and sometime before, during and after marching for these two renowned organizations, Bobby was a Golden Gloves boxer, a many-medaled French horn player, instructor, mentor, promoter, writer, publisher, recording producer, historical gatekeeper, uncrowned, but nevertheless, Royal Curator of All Things Drum Corps, husband, father, the time after time personification of mensch-ism, the forever-next Rocky sequel and thus, the last human being who would never go gentle into any good or dark night. (Talk about rage!) And a guy who considers me as his friend.
If you know or have ever heard of Bobby, your initial acquaintance was invariably (a la Pepe, Bill Hooton, the Georges, DelMonte and Rodriguez) accompanied by an anecdote. There are many, many, many of these, no doubt the congenital indicator that caused such special people to be who and what they uniquely are or were.
Consequently, it would be an easy exercise to simply hang a virtual want ad on Drum Corps Planet asking for submissions, but that would be cheating. This is my tale, my greeting card for Bobby Bell.
I’d be lying if I said that our first meeting was momentous, something that I had been looking forward to — or a life-changing experience. In fact, I didn’t know who he was, nor did I much care. “Bellarosa” sounded like an Italian name, but he just didn’t look it. And he spoke and moved in short busts of James Cagney energy.
I do know it was at a Skyliners practice at the Young Post in the nearly-end-of-the-world Bronx. Someone told me that he was from Brooklyn. That was good. It meant the possibility of not riding the IRT subway for a minimum one hour trip back to the homeland.
Little did I know that those late-night auto trips came with compulsory enrollment in “Drum Corps for Dummies” (the follow-up to Pepe’s “Why You Must Join Drum Corps or Suffer Bodily Harm”) course, which I had barely passed.
I’ve mentioned more than a few times how lucky I was to even be allowed to be a semi-functioning part of this incredibly talented entourage of young/old drum corps giants. A few namedrops will suffice: Martin, Swan, Hazelwood, Koch, Guarino, Bobby’s best friend Joe Carullo — and this was just the horn section.
About the only thing I had going for me was that I never missed a practice — no matter that I struggled with second soprano parts — I was always there. Given that, I was perfect for parades and exhibitions. If there was ever an empty spot, you’d be certain that I was in it.
That was fine with me. Parade watchers cheered for me; little did they know — nor was I about to tell them — not to. But I hadn’t been there long enough (forget the lack of talent aspect for a while!) to deserve to march in competition. That was just fine for Bobby. He had a different career in mind for me: sales.
Sales? “Put this on.” “This” was a Skyliner overseas cap bedecked, adorned, festooned, better yet, laden with so many medals as to weigh just a few ounces less than a World War II combat helmet.
“It’ll get people’s attention.”
Thus, accessorized with a mailman-like fabric shoulder bag abundant with 25-cents-a-copy, Bob Bellarosa-published Eastern Review magazines, I forayed my way into the world of commissioned (“I’ll take care of you when the contest’s over”) sales.
Don’t get me wrong. Officially-authorized with my officially-signed press pass bearing the signature of its only official, I loved making my way through a dozen or more stadiums, with Bobby’s Skyliner jacket on my back and medaled helmet on my head, heralding and preaching of the good news to be found in the pulped pages of the ER publication.
So honor-clad, I responded to the solicitous queries of, “Why aren’t you on the field?” with a well-rehearsed what-are-ya-gonna-do-helpless-lowering-of-my-eye-with-a-sigh-nod-toward-my-back gesture that was guaranteed to sell a couple of mags and, in some cases, find a commiserating, “Tell me more about it,” smile from a young lady.
Class was always in session. Again, like all legendary drum corps personalities, everyone knew celebrity when “The Kid” was around.
“Hey, Jack [O’Brien]. How’s it going? Do you know Mario?”
Of course Jack didn’t know Mario, nor did Mr. Nabor, Hayes, Bruni or Father Wojtycha. And they never would. But the important thing was that Mario knew who they were and why. “. . .
He knocked us down in execution last year,” or, “Wait’ll you see the show he runs.”
In a way, these pre- and post-contest encounters, whether casual or planned, were like field trips. They matched faces and bodies and voices to the oral histories of his one-car classroom. Education was everything, everywhere and everyone.
After-contest parties with a senior corps meant that I got the opportunity to do all the things that a 17-year-old high school junior ought not to be doing. There were more than a few younger guys who had been part of the junior corps of the aptly named Young Post which the Skyliners had in effect appropriated.
Insofar as maturity went, we were pretty much on the same static-ridden, hormonal frequency and, aside from getting our asses kicked by Lefty Mayer for purloining his prosthetic perambulatory piece to check for its floatability (it did!), Bobby kept me — as well as the other kids — safe from major confrontations.
At the end of most of these beer-bolstered bashes, Bobby and I would somehow re-find one another for the trip back to our native land. That is, most of the time. One notable exception to that was an especially cold Rochester night when I was ordered to “Wait in the car. I’ll be right back.”
As I recall it, “right back” did not happen until the following morning, by which time I barely survived the powere-window-opened night with nothing more that my jeans, t-shirt and a New York state map for warmth.
With the sunlight came Bobby’s smiling greeting of something like, “Geez, did I forget to give you the car keys? I got a couple of blankets in the trunk.”
“Right back” was never discussed.
Although it seemed to me that my semi-Skyliner alternative universe would last forever (as would most things when you’re 17 years old), it didn’t. By the end of that one scant year, I’d learned all the salacious songs. Sure’n I Think You Broke Your Wickee-Whackee-Wikee (aka MaryAnne O’Shay) and Lulu Had a Baby, as well as several others I’ve since forgotten.
I’d also filled my “Who’s Who” and “When to Keep Your Mouth Shut” books just about to capacity. More importantly, I actually learned to play well enough to compete with the corps in the last contest of the year. And yet . . .
That summer I saw Loretto for the first time. I loved them. They were so much the corps that Our Lady of Mt. Carmel used to be. I also met Carman Cluna. I didn’t like him. (It wasn’t long after this first meeting that I had to totally revise that chapter.)
I also recall Pepe being home on leave and greeting me with a “Bay-boom! What the $%#@& are you doing here?” (“Bay-Boom” was Pepe’s self-proclaimed moniker for me because I sang bass in our neighborhood doo-wop group.) I needed to go back to a junior corps. Bobby also thought it was a good idea. The Skyliners would always be there.
From time to time in the years that followed, I’d go to Randall’s Island to watch a Sky practice, see Bobby cheering me on when Loretto competed in a couple of “Dream” contests and not cheering me when my new corps, the Caballeros, beat the Skyliners.
Of course, I never returned my Eastern Review press pass which, with a bit of fast talk to those who didn’t know better got me anywhere I wanted seating and access for free. I supposed I had learned my lessons well.
A telephone conversation many years later: “. . . and the night that I froze my butt off in the . . .”
“Nah, did I really do that?”
“And whatever happened to the overseas hat with all the medals? I remember . . .”
“I put it in the casket when Joe Carullo died.” A long pause. “Hey, do ya’ wanna write a story for the magazine?”
“You’re kiddin’. What am I gonna write about?”
“I don’t know! Write about anything. I musta taught you somethin’.”
Yes, boss, you taught me a lot, not the least of these being that I couldn’t write anything about you even though there’s not a single drum corps person who knows anything about you who would disagree that . . .
“You belong in every Hall of Fame. It’d take me no time to put together a bio and . . .”
“Because I said so! Wait’ll I’m dead,” this punctuated by the ever-present who’s-afraid-of-anything, Cagney-like, chuckled retort.
“But I . . .”
So I’m sending you this many-years-belated greeting card to thank you for all the many thankless gifts you gave me and asking you for one more. In spite of yourself, publish this!
Don’t forget there’s that guy in Massachusetts and another in Wisconsin who’ll put it in their mags. I think that it’d be a good present for so many people.
* * * * * * * * *
Publisher’s note: I met Bobby Bellarosa back in the 1970s and one day in 1985 Dave Shaw, Keith Gee and I visited his “Drum Corps Museum” on Columbia Street in Brooklyn; a four-story ediface packed to the gills with trophies, pictures, uniforms and who knows what else. He’s definitely a character, but also someone who has weathered the changing activity for more than 60 years. He’s the true “Drum Corps Nut.”